Punch Shot: First-time major winner in 2015?

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 3, 2015, 2:00 pm

Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth are the obvious choices to become first-time major winners in 2015. But is there anyone else we might be overlooking? Our writers debate:

By JASON SOBEL

Has there ever been a veteran player more primed to win his first major than Rickie Fowler?

OK, you could make the case that a guy like Phil Mickelson, with so many close calls before his 2004 Masters breakthrough, was ready for that moment, but Fowler proved in 2014 that he plays his best golf when the spotlight is shining brightest.

Though he didn’t win, Fowler posted top-five finishes at each of the four majors. That in itself should be considered an impressive leap into the game’s upper echelon.

I’ve long believed that what separated the top tier of players from the next tier is that the former is capable of winning anyplace, anytime. Think about it: How many current players have an equal chance of winning any of the four majors? There aren’t many, but Fowler certainly fits that description. You wouldn’t be any more or less surprised if he won the Masters than the Open Championship.

I still think Sergio Garcia wins multiple major titles – and his first one isn’t far off. Jordan Spieth is going to win one fairly soon; Jason Day will, too. Only one player, though, can be next. Give me the guy who’s come the closest in the last four of 'em.


By RYAN LAVNER

No one really knows what to expect at this year’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay – after all, the only guys who have played there in competition were the 2010 U.S. Amateur participants. (And Jordan Spieth didn’t even make match play.)

So for a breakthrough major winner, why not a guy who has a proven record at golf’s most grueling major – a player with THREE top fives in the last four years? That’s right, for all of the injury questions surrounding Jason Day, one thing you can almost always count on is a strong performance at the year’s second major.

Overall in majors he already has seven top 10s, not a surprise given the strengths of his all-around game. He’s long off the tee. He hits a lot of greens. He’s a terrific scrambler. And he’s a better putter than given credit for (30th on Tour in 2014).

If Day is healthy come June – not a certainty, of course – then he’s my favorite to win the U.S. Open. 


By REX HOGGARD

Although he’s only played in a half dozen Grand Slam tilts – and to be historically accurate, his tie for fourth place at last year’s U.S. Open was little more than a spirited run at “B” flight honors considering Martin Kaymer’s Pinehurst masterpiece – Brooks Koepka is the most complete player vying for his first major championship.

At 24, Koepka arrives on the PGA Tour this season via a winding road that featured stops in Kenya, the Czech Republic and dozens of other points.

On paper, Koepka has all the markings of a major player, including a power game (he ranked sixth last year on Tour in driving distance and 23rd in the more-revealing strokes gained: tee-to-green category) that plays well at most of the modern Grand Slam venues.

He has also shown a surprisingly mature ability to refine the parts of his game that need improvement, particularly around the greens.

However, what will separate Koepka from a deep pack of would-be first-time major winners (a list that includes Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker) will be a resume forged around the globe.

By taking the road less travelled through the European Tour, Koepka proved he has an added quality that can’t be measured and is crucial at any major championship, the ability to overcome adversity.


By RANDALL MELL

Patrick Reed is my pick.

His limited major championship record isn’t so impressive yet. Statistically, he wasn’t great in any category his first two seasons on Tour. But that’s all trumped by his bravado and belief he’s destined for something big. There’s just no fear in him. From his boldly proclaiming he’s a top-five player to his “shhhhh-shing” the gallery at the Ryder Cup, the guy won’t be afraid of the moment. Reed, 24, will be ready to own it when he’s there at the end of a major with a chance to win.

The Masters and British Open at St. Andrews might take more experience, more knowledge, to win, but I wouldn’t put it past Reed to claim one of those. I like him at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson showed you don’t have to be ultra-straight to have a chance.


By WILL GRAY

After a two-year ascent through the professional ranks that basically wore out his passport, Brooks Koepka is ready to make another leap in 2015 – to the title of major champion.

Koepka has all of the attributes you look for when trying to identify future stars: long off the tee, accurate into the greens. He has performed well under pressure and beat an elite field during the European Tour’s Race to Dubai to cap a successful 2014. More importantly, though, he has the brashness of youth, and at 24 years old will not shy away from the game’s biggest stages.

Koepka is embarking on his first full season on the PGA Tour, one which he began with a pair of top-10 finishes this fall and which will include starts in all four majors. Can he break through where Jordan Spieth fell just short last year and win in his first try at Augusta National? That might be a tall task. But can he overpower a course like Chambers Bay, St. Andrews or Whistling Straits? I like his chances.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.